An Ocean Spilling Over the Floor

Sarah FitzSimons is showing her magnificent Pacific Quilt at Hawthorn Contemporary here in Milwaukee. The exhibition is called Ocean Object, and features the enormous textile, in addition to related drawings and smaller sewn works by this Madison-based artist.

The exhibition at Hawthorn is an unusual opportunity to see this work. It flows over the floor, filling up the center space of a fairly large room. Basically a quilted bathometric map, the gallery describes the work as:

Pacific Quilt spans 21 ft x 24 ft with one inch representing 25 miles. In translation from ocean to quilt, varying shades of blue fabric convey underwater topography and sewn quilt lines extend out in organic swirls to describe surface currents.

The quilt can be seen in its entirety, as it is laid out on the gallery floor. It is envisioned by the artist as useable, despite being distinctly non-utilitarian, as it is very big (my museum background sent cascades of red flags: it will get dirty! how could such a large textile be cleaned! would it fit in my car?). Too large to be easily transported, too immense for any bed, and indeed most rooms. What would it be like to be wrapped in such a vast sea?

The Pacific Ocean defined my childhood and my young adulthood. A transplanted Californian, I still retain the (now problematic) habit of assuming that large water indicates a westerly direction. I played in that ocean, looked out over it, turned green with seasickness while out on it, almost drowned in it (saved by an unknown surfer), and have wandered along its wet sand from San Diego to Arcata. I have also sat on one of its beaches and looked east, towards a very distant home, marveling at the circuit my life had made, from conception to adulthood, across that expanse of water.

Maybe due to the recent disruption of moving to a new job and a new city, I wanted to locate something of me, of my experience, in this blue expanse on the gallery floor. I found myself walking around the Pacific Quilt looking for familiar spots–San Francisco Bay and Baja California—which are geographically distinct and turn out to be identifiable even at this scale. I walked around the entire blue, undulating ocean, from the Arctic, along Asia, to the Antarctic and up along the Americas. And on a quilted map of the Pacific floor, on the floor of a gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was able to find something known, a small connection to home, a confirmation of myself.

Vast, unimaginable, powerful, beautiful. Bathometry to bedroom, ocean floor on gallery floor. Traveling the circumference of the Pacific Rim, gazing over the depths and islands, bays and continents. Imagine wrapping yourself in the ocean blue. Pacific Quilt is on view from June 8 – August 23, 2019 at Hawthorn Contemporary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

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Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

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It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Notes on working with an artist in 2013

It is a rare thing to encounter another Humboldt State University alum, as I live in Wisconsin. But one week in 2013 was different, when my work at the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actually brought a fellow lumberjack into town.

Michael Lucero (Art, 1976, a solid ten years before me, Art, 1986) lives in Tennessee. His art-making has taken him from California and undergraduate studies at HSU to an MFA at the University of Washington. He has lived in New York and Italy, and has taught as a visiting professor throughout the United States, such as a 1989 summer arts program at HSU (I attended the summer 1988 session, missing Michael’s stint by one year). His ceramic work was featured in a 1996 retrospective exhibition organized by the Mint Museum that traveled to four venues, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art.

Michael was in Madison to install a body of early work in the Chazen’s 5,000 square foot Rowland Galleries. During the installation we had a chance to talk about Humboldt and studying art. I was so pleased to learn that he remembered people I studied with at HSU: Ron Johnson in art history, and Mort Scott who taught sculpture. Michael also had many stories about his experiences in the galleries of New York and his friendships with well-known artists, teachers, and dealers.

During the week we worked with the Chazen preparators to install 17 wire and wood hanging figures, made in 1978-79 after the artist first moved to New York. The works were on loan from a private collector, and two museums that received part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

Reaching 8-13 feet in height, the figures are simultaneously fragile and imposing. Hovering just a few inches from the floor, they hung still when the gallery was empty, but they moved gently, responding to subtle air movement, even when anyone entered the room. They towered over whoever stood near, yet provided a chance for close investigation of their component parts: broken wood, crayon and paint, wire, mop handles, and broken furniture scavenged from the streets of the city.

The artist created new drawings for the exhibition, using sponges, fly swatters, shoes, toilet paper rolls, and foam noodles to stamp images onto cardboard, making bold, weighty figures that reference the hanging sculptures. He was also inspired by the gallery space, at the last minute adding a new work to the exhibition: two monumental figures stamped directly onto a large gallery door that had been painted to mimic the cardboard of the drawings. At first seeming so large, the drawings on cardboard were dwarfed by the newly painted wall figures, yet their textured surfaces demanded close looking. This was an installation both overwhelming and intimate, it played with scale and had so much to experience: subtle movement, shifting light, interesting textures, and spatial displacement.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

In the re-purposed wood and furniture fragments, in the drawings made from available materials, is Humboldt evident in this work, or is it all New York City? In the quiet of the towering figures with their slight movements, walking among them all that is missing is the sound of water dripping into the ferns on the floor of the redwood forest. Maybe, or not. But it was fun, for one week in 2013, to conjure a connection between Arcata and NYC, to swap art world stories with another far-flung HSU alum, and participate in the installation and documentation of a truly wonderful body of work.

Michael Lucero Installation was on view May 11 to August 18, 2013 at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Photos by Eric Tadsen.

 

Music and Art, Chicano and Not

Los Lobos played my local neighborhood festival this past weekend. Listening to the music almost drowned me in nostalgia and sadness, while at the same time smacked me with joy. Let’s just say it was a confusing weekend.

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La Fete de Marquette 2018, from the ferris wheel

I help to run the merch booth at La Fete de Marquette, an eastside Madison music festival that just completed its 18th year. Held around the same time as Bastille Day, Fete has focused on music from the French diaspora. France being an old colonial power, this means that—lucky for Madison–the music featured has generally been from many parts of the world: Africa, the Caribbean, France, Louisiana. But this year that francophone emphasis was tossed like a head from a guillotine when the venerable band from East LA gloriously took the main stage on Sunday night.

Despite the white women who, in the close crowd at the front of the stage, bounced and happily flailed their arms to songs like Carabina .30-30, the tall white dudes who cut in front of me and the short couple next to me, filling in the small breathing space we had amid the hot humid air and blocking our view, or the drunk white woman who spilled beer on me while trying to squeeze past then wiped my breast in a failed attempt at drying me (and maybe apologizing?), I had a good time. Really. The music was, well, these guys know what they’re doing. Steve Berlin played with the really compelling opening band, Making Movies, and still withstood the sweltering heat to play the main set. David Hidalgo, Louie, and Cesar delivered their powerhouse sound sans probleme, and the young drummers kept everything moving, even putting on a water show that thrilled the crowd.

The nostalgia for me was overwhelming. I have seen this band in Detroit, when the Bad Livers opened for them in what might have been the strangest billing ever. The crowd was a mixture of bluegrass punk hipsters and extended Latino families, all waiting for hours on a cement floor for a show that started very late but enthralled everyone in attendance. I have also danced to their music at the now defunct Frog Island Festival in a small city park in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the pouring rain, drenched but dreading the time when the band finally called the show when they felt endangered by the lightning and the water cascading off of the tent around them. The last time I saw them was at the classist disaster that is Ravinia, where I sat behind a wealthy white family and watched the mother text on her oversized iPhone that “these beaners really can rock.” The white season ticket-holders left early, and with all of the rules of the place, none of the many enthusiastic fans on the distant grass were able to take the empty seats or dance nearer to the stage. The show rocked, but also sucked, for the audience as well as (I am certain) for the band.

Being in the crowd at the stage this weekend made me think of Old Town in San Diego, where, so close to la linea, Mexicanidad is made safe for consumption. It’s all chimichangas and paper flowers, margaritas and flounced skirts. It’s the table of gringos who jump up and chase down the mariachis in the middle of their meal, leaving their open wallets on the table and their leather jackets hanging on their chairs. My latinidad is some of these things (I like a nice margarita, I’ve shopped and lunched at Old Town), but it’s also much more. It’s bad spanish, great food, unruly hair, a vague sense of exclusion, but an innate understanding of mestiza; it’s a confusing place.

Which shouldn’t bring me to Gronk, but it does. A few weeks ago I worked with a colleague to host a group of Latino middle school students for an hour at the museum. Because there are works by two—two!–Latino artists on view in the entire museum, I chose Gronk’s painting as the focus of our visit. The painting by Gronk that is in the galleries is on Spanish bark paper, which may be similar to the traditional bark papers of Mexico that, you know, held written histories in codex form, but were burned during the conquest, leaving only a handful still in existence. Gronk’s choice of material may make reference to this ancient process, but his imagery captures more recent developments in its vocabulary that riffs off of the murals and graffiti of LA.

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GRONK (GLUGIO GRONK NICANDRO) (American, b. 1954) Fragments of a Landscape 1994 Acrylic on Spanish bark paper 78 x 78 in. Chazen Museum of Art, Harry and Margaret P. Glicksman Endowment Fund, Juli Plant Grainger Endowment Fund, and Cyril W. Nave Endowment Fund purchase, 1995.4

My intention was to make a connection between ancient archaeology and Gronk’s notion of “street archaeology,” how, in his wandering around his city, he is looking, seeing, sketching, and incorporating his visual experience into his work. I pretty much failed at achieving my goal of elaborating on this idea of archaeology with middle school students, but I was able to introduce them to a contemporary artist’s work and his observational practice as an example of a latino artist in this world who has been making art every day for a long time (starting with morning coffee; see @elgronk on Instagram for some examples of his visual finds).

Why write about Los Lobos, the Chicano band from East LA, and Gronk, the Chicano painter and conceptual/performance artist? Two experiences of Mexicanidad, both from Los Angeles, each very different. I don’t know LA, and it has taken my entire life to overcome the anti-LA bias that comes with growing up in San Diego. I am also not Chicano—with an Anglo-American father and a Mexican-American mother, we were raised in a white suburb and only visited our Mexican-American family in Arizona on weekends or holidays. I do not know details of these artists’ lives, but I understand there are important differences–gay, straight, extended families, neighborhoods, studio practices, fame, industry biases, communities, histories.

But Los Lobos, their sound and their music, is intertwined with my mid-western experience, and that close relationship makes me think of Gronk’s daily drawing, how this life-long activity of playing music or making art—of developing a practice–enables the creation of a world. Los Lobos, through many years of music-making, have carved out genre-breaking careers that have made them undefinable—rock? Latin? Blues, jazz, jam-band?–and taken them from weddings to neighborhood festivals to the White House and around the world. And Gronk, through his art practice that incorporates drawing, painting, and performance, has made art on street corners, in university museums, galleries, private collections, and on opera stages.

The daily experience of making or listening to music, of making or looking at art—how does it influence our lives? Is it an escape, a luxury, or is it the basic rhythm, the pulse, the bass that moves us forward and provides the structure that underlies everything? I imagine the band members of Los Lobos play music every day, like Gronk and his daily coffee drawings. I am no musician and not much of an artist, but I think about both and interact with both just about every day.

Why do I put up with white women who flail their arms and bounce, blocking my view? Because of the music, man. Because there needs to be more than just two works by Latino artists on view in the galleries. Because those students still don’t see themselves represented in the museum.

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Los Lobos on stage at La Fete de Marquette, 2018